Becoming a Runner: A Quarantine Story
By Alex Burlison
If you had asked me two months ago if I would ever be a runner, my response would have been short and (probably) cynical. Running has never been for me. I played football, baseball, and basketball in my youth, and then fell in love with climbing in college. I had a long stint with yoga, have dabbled in gymnastic strength training, and consider myself an explorer of all human movement. I’m now a wellness coach and my focus lies in biomechanics and improving the structure of the human body. Up until recently, the thought of running just to run was laughable. Then Covid-19 happened. I was out of work, couldn’t train at the gym, and in a few short weeks had crushed my list of home-improvement projects. I needed a brand new hobby. Luckily, I have been best friends with Summation Athletics’ coach George Bieker for over 15 years now. George is not one to try and convince you that you should pursue something. Instead, like an old Zen master, he gently prods and nudges you along until BOOM you find yourself itching to go on a run. Our training together over the past 8 weeks has been an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
One of the biggest insights gained through training with him is that I had no idea how to pace myself. The sport-specific running from my youth almost always consisted of short bursts of high intensity. That carried over into my “runs” later in life, where I would just gas myself out and be out of breath for the entirety of the run. You can imagine how put off I was at the thought of doing this consistently. I know now that this approach to training is not sustainable, and does far less to improve your endurance base than a slower, steadier pace. That’s the key: it should feel relatively easy, a pace theoretically, you could sustain for a very long time. Learning to pace myself and stay within certain heart-rate ranges took a bit of time, but the more I did it the more accurately I could judge my heart-rate without a monitor. Now I feel like, at certain intensities, I could go forever. My endurance improved considerably without having to flog my system during every training session!
My original concept of running was skewed. I realized that I didn’t necessarily need to feel worked at the end of every run. We started slowly adding low-intensity runs into my schedule, and then gradually adding more runs and upping the intensity level. This gave my body time to adapt to the workload. My background in strength training has caused me to be somewhat hooked on the feeling of fatigue from training. At first, feeling good and full of energy after a run felt really odd. It felt like I wasn’t doing enough and wouldn’t see any marked progress in my endurance capacity. After a few short weeks, I realized this was just a hang-up in my mind. The best way to build a strong base of endurance is a gradual build at lower levels of intensity, for a long period of time. Sustainable progression in endurance capacity requires the right amount of intensity and consistency; both of which I have learned through our training.
I’ve also learned that running is truly one of the best, most efficient ways of stressing the systems of the human body. My fascination with human movement and subsequent training in biomechanics have highlighted just how important gait cycles are to maintaining your health. My coaching deals primarily with teaching people how to walk and run more efficiently. I’ve seen massive improvements in myself and my clients when gait training is prioritized. When we look at the evolution of the human body, it's easy to conclude that gait is one of the foundations of human movement and requires the activation of many muscle groups. I understood this notion after spending time reviewing the literature on biomechanics and the role of running in health but had never really felt that it was true. Now, after a few months, I’m beginning to understand more and more just how important running is for us as humans.
There is something eternal about running. It is locked into our biology, the same way that a cat wants to hunt and a bird wants to fly. It is this expression of something so deep-rooted in our psyche that has been the most profound experience for me. I can safely say that I love to run because now I know how to run. The more I learn about pacing, heart rate, and the long-term goals of the practice, the more I grow to love running. Had I not bothered to seek outside help in the form of a coach, I can guarantee that I never would have learned to love running and had I not bothered to invest the time into learning what sustainable running looks and feels like, I may never have broken through that initial resistance. If we want to see a consistent progression in your physical abilities, sometimes we have to step back and lean on others who have gone through the same struggles. It’s about the efficiency of movement and efficiency of learning. I’m extremely grateful for all the knowledge I’ve gained through this experience, and I don’t expect it to stop any time soon. Now I can say I am a runner. I never would have thought those words would come out of my mouth, and yet, here we are.
Alex Burlison is a wellness coach, climber, and a specialist in biomechanics located in Salt Lake City, UT. He also forgot to mention that during this time he broke his record for longest run distances, again and again, culminating in a 30k in just under three and a half hours. Find him on Instagram as @warriorwellnesstraining.